By: USA Games Correspondent, Tynan Gable
The little act of giving everyone a chance can go a long way and leave a lasting impact. This is the lesson everyone can learn from this week’s Game Changer, Steve Valach. Steve is the head football coach at Liberty High School in Renton, WA and a set of thankful parents believe he is well deserving of the recognition and praise of the #ImAGameChanger campaign.
Several years ago, Steve and Peggy McCarthy took the initiative to get their son, Kevin, involved on the Liberty High School football team. Kevin loves football and they wanted to see if there was some way he could help the team. Kevin has Down syndrome, and because of this has faced the ongoing challenge of being given very limited opportunities for growth in the realm of athletics.
With Coach Valach, things were different, and an entirely new world opened for Kevin. From the day he attended his first football practice, he was treated with respect and dignity by the coach and players. To many people (including Peggy and Kevin), Coach Valach is much more than just a coach – he is a mentor, teacher, and a friend.
The idea was to have Kevin play a variation of a team manager role. His role grew each year as he moved with his graduating class from the freshman team to JV, and then from JV to Varsity. One of the main ways Kevin was able to get involved was during the open team discussions that occurred Thursdays after practice and weekends after games.
At these sessions the coach would call for volunteers to speak about team members who had been performing well or for general motivational comments. Kevin always had something he wanted to say to the team.
“This was really good for helping him to articulate his ideas in a way people could understand, and slow down and talk so people could hear,” Peggy said.
But Kevin gained a lot more than just public speaking skills during his time on the team. According to Peggy, Valach also encouraged his team to “interact with him. It was a pretty amazing thing because they embraced Kevin and treated him like a regular guy.”
Steve was always mindful that his players were models for Kevin, and he was insistent that his whole team embrace their roles as teachers and peer mentors. Peggy further described how, while the coach did not often directly interfere with the way in which the boys would interact, “he wanted to build the team with young men of character and that treating all people right is part of that and the right thing to do”.
Now seven years out of high school, Kevin has a job at QFC and is an assistant football coach at Liberty High School. Steve and the other coaches handle the formal coaching roles but allow Kevin to have a hand in some small organizational tasks. Mainly, Kevin is there to hang out and have fun in a welcoming and encouraging environment.
Peggy stressed the fact that the lessons Kevin learned from his time with the football team were things that no amount of time in the classroom could have taught him. She says meeting the coach is one of the most valuable things that has happened in Kevin’s life and that he is able to pass along the lessons he learns, even sometimes to his mom.
“It has shaped who he is and how he sees himself in the world so much. I was short-tempered with him the other day and he calmly reminded me that one of the things the coach always tells his team is that they should respond, not react.”
Today, other children with Down syndrome have followed in Kevin’s steps to work alongside Steve and the rest of the Liberty High School coaching staff. Steve Valach changed the game for these kids directly through his actions. More importantly, he is indirectly impacting children with intellectual disabilities around the world through the knowledge he bestows in his players and all of us about compassion and fair treatment for all.